The celebration, the champagne, the championship, it all reminded Matt Clare of two summers ago and he began to cry.
FC Wichita won the Heartland Conference championship on Saturday with a 5-1 thrashing of Tulsa Athletic at Stryker Soccer Complex, winning its second title in three seasons. FC Wichita (10-1-1) defeated Tulsa for the third time, won its eighth straight home game, and advanced to the NPSL South Region semifinals against Midland-Odessa FC (9-3) next Saturday at 7:15 p.m.
But that’s not why Clare was crying.
He was crying because Shadow Sebele, one of Clare’s closest friends, was not there to enjoy the celebration, champagne, or championship with him. Sebele, the first captain in FC Wichita history, was killed in an automobile accident in January 2016.
So when the microphone was passed to Clare, who scored three goals, the hundred or so fans down on the field anxiously awaited to hear what their star would have to say. Instead of basking in the spotlight, Clare used his platform to ask the crowd for 30 seconds of silence for his former teammate.
The crowd obliged, then followed with a “Shadow” chant. The celebration would roll on, but that moment was a powerful one to Clare.
“I know he’s here and I know he’s enjoying this just as much as we are right now,” Clare said. “Tonight was for him, for the city, for the club, and for the organization.”
After not playing with the club last summer, Clare returned to Wichita with another championship run in mind. But a part of him also wanted to return to continue Sebele’s legacy, which was also a motivation for newcomer Uzi Tayou, who played with Sebele at West Virginia.
“Every time I step on the field, I know that he’s with me,” said Clare, who has Sebele’s No. 18 tattooed on his right bicep. “It truly gives me a sense of peace when I step on the field now to play. I feel like I have him with me and he’s going to help push me and continue to make me find success. I love Shadow so much and every day I think about him.”
“Shadow was just a special person,” said Tayou, who wore a shirt that read ‘In Loving Memory of Shadow’ under his jersey. “If you met him for two minutes, you would like him. Even if you didn’t like him, he would find a way to make you like him. He just had that kind of affect on people.”
Clare’s motivation translated to an early onslaught of goals, as FC Wichita buried Tulsa Athletic in a 3-0 hole in the game’s opening 17 minutes.
In the fourth minute, Luca Anelli froze a defender in the box with a hesitation move to gain the baseline, then fired the ball across the face of the goal to a charging Clare, who gave FC Wichita the lead with a one-time volley into the far-side netting.
Deri Corfe tacked on his first of two goals in the 16th minute on a brilliant solo foray down the left side where he bested three defenders. Tulsa Athletic was so frustrated with its start, on the ensuing kick-off, centerback Gustavo Vargas misjudged his ball back to the keeper on the thick grass and a sprinting Clare was able to intercept it and easily finish.
“We wanted to come out in the first half and give it to them the best we could and as quickly as we could,” FC Wichita manager Steve Ralos said. “We were sharp, we were fast, and we were clean.”
FC Wichita has ascended to the No. 4 team in the NPSL power rankings thanks to its reliable play at all levels on the field. Mark Weir has become a top-notch keeper, while James Togbah and Boris Tonzi have solidified the back line, Leo Sosa is a two-way force in the middle of the field, and Clare, Anelli, and Corfe are scoring goals at a high rate.
Ralos believes its a group capable of winning a national championship, especially with efforts like the one on Saturday.
“I don’t really think there is a team in the country that can touch this group,” Ralos said.
In a season where the club registered its first victory in the U.S. Open Cup, FC Wichita is ready for another first — a third postseason win in the NPSL playoffs.
A win next Saturday would send FC Wichita to Miami for the South Region championship and two wins away from a title chance.
“I really do believe the community and the fans were waiting for something like this,” Sosa said. “We are finally bringing them a good level of soccer for the city. We want to keep taking that next step.”
FC WICHITA: Mark Weir; James Togbah, Boris Tonzi, Uzi Tayou, Leo Catarina; Leo Sosa, Luke Hitchman (Roberto Gomes, 78th), Matt Clare (Levi Spray, 84th); Luca Anelli (Marcos Gomes, 31st), Diego Serfaty (Felipe Maia, 75th), Deri Corfe (Adam James, 85th).
TULSA ATHLETIC: Michael Kluver (Curtis Goldsmith, 84th); Ricardio Morris (Tyrone Blackwell, 43rd), Gustavo Vargas, Jamie Gilbert (Christian Aldama, 84th), Jose Navarro; Nicholas Downs (Munashe Raranje, 45th), Santiago Riveros, Joseph Garcia; Jacques Francois (Ricky Chavez, 73rd), Levi Coleman, Dave Leung (Chris Moore, 61st).
FIRST HALF: 1. FC Wichita, Matt Clare (Luca Anelli), 4th minute; 2. FC Wichita, Deri Corfe, 16th minute; 3. FC Wichita, Matt Clare, 17th minute; 4. Tulsa Athletic, Dave Leung, 27th minute. SECOND HALF: 5. FC Wichita, Deri Corfe, 56th minute; 6. FC Wichita, Matt Clare (Deri Corfe), 77th minute. SHOTS: Tulsa Athletic 4, FC Wichita 8. SAVES: Tulsa Athletic, Michael Kluver 5; FC Wichita, Mark Weir 3.
YELLOW CARDS: Tulsa Athletic, Ricardio Morris, 23rd; Jose Navarro, 44th; Gustavo Vargas, 65th. FC Wichita, James Togbah, 35th, Marcos Gomes, 80th.